How to Think Like a Toy Inventor: Innovation Tips from the Creator of Bop It

How to Think Like a Toy Inventor: Innovation Tips from the Creator of Bop It
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“Most inventors think about how to solve problems. Toy inventors think about how to create them” 

Dan Klitsner, inventor of hundreds of successful toys including the iconic best-selling Bop It, has discovered the secret to innovative thinking. And it turns out that his approach is especially effective for those of us who are NOT toy inventors as well.

Dan offers this example: “A linear problem solver will see tangled wires as a problem to solve and think of ways to prevent them from getting tangled. A toy inventor sees tangled wires as inspiration for a fun challenge for players to solve- for example a game like “Twister”! 

Back in the 90s one of Dan’s clients was Memorex, an electronics company that hired him to design TV remotes. After spending time trying to make the products as efficient as possible, Dan tried a different approach in which he created a problem for the user to solve:

how to control a TV without traditional buttons? “I decided to go the opposite of the most sleek and functional remotes on the market at the time – instead of efficient buttons, I thought it would be entertaining if you had to “Bop” it on the table to change channels, Twist a knob to change volume, Pull a lever for on and off. Although it was rejected by Memorex as a remote it was the type of thinking that led me to turn it into a game”.

Luckily, that creative approach paid off. For more than 25 years, the Bop It has entertained countless children through its fast-paced and humorous gameplay, consisting of the “Bop It!”, “Twist It!” and “Pull It!” commands of the original version, followed by many other commands added in succeeding versions. 

Aside from Bop It, Dan has created other toys, such as Perplexus, Simon Air, Pop It Pro, and Hyper Dash, resulting in numerous patents under his name. With such success under his belt, it is indeed interesting to know how Dan can come up with various ideas that reach millions of children around the world, forming fond childhood memories, and strengthening friendships. “Toy inventing combines my passion for designing beautiful things and my interest in gadgets. For example, I co-created Perplexus as a beautiful sculpture that would sit on the table to be admired, while also challenging you to solve it at the same time”

How does a Toy Inventor learn to think like this?

Dan grew up in a creative household – Both his parents were stage professionals, with his father a musical actor and his mother a dancer for the New York Ballet. As a child, Dan loved drawing and was very curious about how things work. His parents gave him free rein to explore his creativity. Dan recalls “My parents allowed me to take our gas lawnmower apart to build a go-kart… I did, however, have to use the push lawnmower the rest of my childhood, but I think it was a good trade-off!”

After high school, Dan went to college for engineering, but he hated how literal it was.  Fortunately, his father learned from a colleague about the industrial design program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and recommended it to Dan.

“I opened the catalog and saw things such as blenders, toasters, and pencil grips, and I instantly knew that this was what I wanted to do,” Dan says. “I wanted to invent things, not just toys, that looked and felt good in your hands. I wanted to create beautiful and functional objects. Everyone is told to follow their dreams, but, like most people, I didn’t know what my dream was until I saw that catalog.”

After graduating with his degree in industrial design, Dan became a freelancer, using his expertise in designing three-dimensional objects, and creating various high-profile products for big corporations such as the remote controls for Memorex and the iconic bottles for Woodford Reserve, and Hornitos tequila. He also won an award for designing the Clorox toilet cleaner bottle still in use today.

How to Think Like a Toy Inventor

Dan regularly gives keynote speeches about “problem creating” and some of his other approaches to creative thinking and innovation, helping businesses take a unique approach to finding disruptive solutions. In today’s hypercompetitive and volatile business environment, people in every type of field need to employ new and innovative ways of thinking to succeed. One way to shake things up: How about thinking like a toy inventor? Here he shares a few of the lessons he has learned in his 30 years as a best-selling toy inventor that can be applied to just about any business:

Surprise people

Dan shares “When inventing toys, I think about how to give people something they didn’t know they wanted, rather than just solving a problem. “Something I’ve learned is to inject personality into my designs. I follow what the client specified, but I always add something a little bit extra or unexpected. Surprising people with an entertaining feature that they didn’t ask for is truly thinking like a toy inventor ”

Watch the player – not the game

“Most people fall in love with their inventions, but they are focusing on the wrong thing. Almost all my successful products have started with the goal of “animating the player”- the game’s purpose is literally to make people into the entertainment, not paying as much attention to the toy itself. When you apply this approach to any product or business idea you will discover new features that fully engage people as participants. Remember that the people are the show- not the product.”

Make a mock-up- not a perfect model

Trained as an industrial Designer, Dan says his experience in creating 3D objects taught him that when visualizing and pitching ideas, often a very rough mock-up is much more effective than a polished prototype or slick rendering. It’s also integral to his creative process. 

“Most of my creativity comes out in the act of building things, especially as a rough mock-up. It’s important to get something in your hands and try it. Most importantly, a rough mock-up invites everyone into the process”

Don’t present ideas- reveal them

Having sold hundreds of concepts to executives at large toy companies Dan knows a bit about how to present ideas to clients and win them over.  “A toy inventor must be even better at expressing their ideas than the idea itself.  Your goal is to strike FOMO into your audience so make sure to wait to reveal the big innovation once you’ve set the stage and have their full attention- then pay close attention to what they say when you make the reveal. One of the most important components of invention is relentless listening. 

Make your idea RITE 

Dan finds that  “Most people think having a great idea is the key to success- but it’s actually only 25% of it. If you only focus on the idea it’s like trying to build it on a one-legged table”. 

He believes that for any idea to succeed, 3 other factors have to be equally as strong as the idea. Dan uses a checklist known as RITE to determine an idea’s potential. It’s an acronym that stands for the four legs of an “idea table”  that must all be tall and sturdy enough to support the big idea for the project to succeed:

  • R=Relationships – to make the “R” leg of your table strong “It’s not just who you know, it’s how well you know them” says Dan. “Before you pitch an idea to a potential investor or business division, it’s imperative to first develop a rapport and trusted relationship with the people you are pitching to”
  • I= Innovation – Obviously, the strength of an idea is important- but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s already a 10 out of 10. To make your” idea leg” strong enough, assume it’s a 5 and push yourself to add innovation to make it a true 10. Repeat!
  • T=Timing – Dan knows that the most painful thing for any inventor is to have the right idea at the wrong time- often people pitch an idea too early and then miss the window a few months later. Pay attention to a company’s history and current trends to make sure your idea isn’t too early. Sometimes waiting ensures that the “T”  leg fully supports the idea. 
  • E=Execution – A great idea can be executed in 100 different ways, each with varying results. Many people invest too much time in an execution that weakens the “E” leg.  Push yourself to iterate ideas at least 10 times to make sure you have the strongest version to be sure that this leg is as sturdy as the others.

If you can’t make it RITE, make it wrong

Dan advises that if you are getting stuck trying to make your product too perfect, take a break and try to make it as “wrong” as possible. “Often it’s much harder to come up with ideas that are the most ridiculous rather than the most functional. In a way that is exactly how the idea for Bop It was inspired”

Today, Dan is using the Bop It as a force for good, looking to work with celebrities and other famous people to harness the latest version of the toy as a way to call attention to various worthy causes.


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